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Behind The Scenes at The Games

Bob LeFavi placed fourth worldwide in the Open Masters division and knew going into the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games that his strengths would be in the final events. He placed 19th in the first event,

Photo by Patrick Sternkopf — Patrick Sternkopf Photography


Bob LeFavi placed fourth worldwide in the Open Masters division and knew going into the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games that his strengths would be in the final events. He placed 19th in the first event, 13th in the second and 14th in the third. But during the sled pull in the third event, he experienced back spasms in his lower back. The next event included deadlifts — one of LeFavi’s specialties. However, knowing the stress deadlifts place on the lower back, he reluctantly took the advice of the Games’ medical professionals and withdrew. Here he shares his experience as an athlete in the Games.

As I write this, sitting in the athletes’ tent at the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, an entire village is being set up a few hundred yards away. I imagine this is similar to the feeling of Hollywood bigwigs coming to a small town to produce a movie. There are construction workers finishing their jobs, cable TV vans and moving trucks on all the roads around the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., and vendor tents and exercise equipment spread out over 50 acres.

And of course, throngs of people are wading through this newly established village in pursuit of anything from exercise wear or Paleo-friendly food to a handshake with their favorite athlete. All these fans come with their expectations and preconceived notions about what the Games would and should be.

I’m no different. This year, I came to the Games as a Masters athlete, and I had my own expectations of what the experience would be, having envisioned many times all the events I might encounter. What I found is something I could never have anticipated. I leave with unexpected impressions and images that have impacted me. Here are four of the memories I bring home, images that fans may not get the chance to form — my own behind-the-scenes view of the Games.

1. Professional

From the first few hours at the Games, I was impressed by its professional atmosphere. That is, this competition is, without question, a professional sporting event. I don’t make that claim because the winners receive cash awards (the classical definition of a professional versus an amateur athlete); I say that because of the manner in which the athletes are treated.

Every step of the way, athletes are treated with the dignity and respect afforded to professional athletes at a major sporting event. I have been to many professional events as a coach, and I have seen this type of treatment (and lack of it) before. It goes a long way toward fostering a positive experience for the athletes as well as enabling the entire competition to run more smoothly.

This professionalism led to a shared sense of justice and fairness between the athletes and those administering the Games. Had we been treated in any other way, it would have been easy to complain about small things. But when everyone — athletes and administrators — see themselves and others as professionals, that mutual respect softens the rough spots. The professionalism is not any one or two things I can point to; it just seeps into everything and ultimately comes from the top.

Case in point was my judge “no-repping” me on overhead squats. I wanted to drop the weight on her, but the simple fact of the matter is that she was trained and communicative, treated me with respect and took her job very seriously. Her professional approach helped me forge through.

But the professionalism of the Games is not what impressed me the most.

2. Intelligent Events

This is not the Open. The Open is limited. Remember, the five events in the Open should be able to be performed by anyone in virtually any garage. While that is great for inclusion, it does limit the exercises from which to choose. For instance, there would never be running (can’t show the distance on video), rowing or cycling (would have to standardize equipment) in the Open.

So there I was, having done well in the Open on some of the standard movements in a box. Thrusters, pull-ups, snatches? No problem. But, again, the Games is not the Open. Sled drag with 185 pounds? Sled pull? Never touched one. I have now. It wasn ’t pretty, but in good CrossFit spirit, I gave it what I had.

CrossFit officials did what they should have done. They came up with events that challenged us in new and different ways. When I looked at the events and how they were structured, I saw thoughtful design. Some events taxed the same energy system or muscle groups, others taxed different ones on purpose, but they all were absolutely brutal. In the end, the most consistently proficient athlete won. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Still, the event development is also not what impressed me the most.

3. Organized

I was surprised at how incredibly organized the Games were. At check-in, I expected, “You’re Bob LeFavi? Welcome. Here’s your packet. See you tomorrow.” No.

At check-in, there are no less than nine stations to go through once passing the identification check. At every station, you are fitted with clothing or shoes. Then — get this — there is a small army of tailors there to adjust your clothing. Yes, I’m serious. They will shorten or take in your shorts or shirts (and do it in an hour).

The day after check-in, CrossFit administrators held a mandatory athlete meeting. The extent of the organization became more apparent there. Every minute of the day was mapped out. When I saw the schedule I thought, “Well, I’m sure they’ll run behind.” No way. Each and every event went off on the minute. There were no hiccups.

Before we went on the field, we were herded from one tent to another and fitted with anklets to track the precise timing of our finishes. Numbers and anklets were double- and triple-checked. Care was taken that we had everything we needed. Logos (that weren’t Reebok, the main sponsor of the Games) on our apparel were covered with tape. I had small Nike Swooshes on my gloves that I could barely see, but they caught them. It seemed that all the details were considered.

That care was seen most clearly in the effort to maintain the athletes’ health. Fluids and Paleo-friendly meals were available in the air-conditioned athletes’ tent. In addition, CrossFit hired a team of therapists and rehabilitation specialists to help injured or sore athletes. I took advantage of this service and their ice baths.

Even the impressive organization at the Games isn’t what made the biggest impression.

4. Community

We all know that CrossFit fosters camaraderie among participants. People cheer each other on. That’s one reason so many come back, right?

Yet the Games are a different story. This is the pinnacle of our sport, and everyone wants to get on that podium. My thinking when coming here was that, surely, athletes at the Games are going to be more reclusive and self-focused than we might normally see at a local competition. I was wrong.

Without question, what impressed me the most at the Games was the sense of camaraderie and community among the competitors. I was floored by the outright friendliness of my fellow competitors. There were no prima donnas here. We were all just struggling through. The thinking among the competitors was, “I want to do my best, but I want you to do your best, too.” The encouragement we gave each other was infectious and inspiring. I saw gloves, weight belts and even shoes being shared. Advice was always free to Games newbies like me.

The single image that will remain foremost in my mind is finishing the morning event on Wednesday. As I sprinted toward the finish, three of my fellow competitors who had just finished were standing on the side of my lane yelling, “C’mon, Bob!” The high-fives they gave me as I ran through brought about a feeling CrossFitters appreciate on a daily basis.

What surprised me is that I thought I had to go to California to get the highest CrossFit experience possible at the pinnacle of CrossFit competition. What I found is that the most profound impression of my behind-the-scenes experience at the Games is something I have at home in my own box.

Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW, CrossFit Level-1 trainer, is a professor of sports medicine at Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Ga., and a 2013 Games competitor.